ILYA MARRITZ: To call the Trump Taj Mahal a casino would be like calling the original Taj Mahal a mausoleum in India. Technically, you'd be right, but you'd be missing the point.
REPORTER: [AUDIBLY FROM A VINTAGE RECORDING] Donald Trump gave Michael Jackson a personal tour of his $1.2 billion extravaganza, and we were there every step of the way. If the Taj Mahal casino is the eighth Wonder of the World. [FADES UNDER]
MARRITZ: When it opened in 1990, it was the largest casino ever built. A helicopter was required to mount the gigantic letters T-R-U-M-P onto the building. The staff wore turbans with ostrich feathers. The Taj contained at least a dozen restaurants.
REPORTER: [OVER RETRO MUSIC] In one reserved for VIPs, where Michael was flanked by tiny fans, there are no menus. Its gourmet chefs will create anything you wish. With revenue topping $37 million a month, Donald’s biggest gamble is turning up aces.
MARRITZ: There were skeptics. The New York Times noted that, to cover its enormous debts, the Taj would have to bring in a million dollars a day. It would have to be a massive hit right from the start.
[TRUMP, INC. THEME MUSIC PLAYS]
VOICE 1: Colorful. Colorful is — is a good way of describing it.
VOICE 2: As glitzy and fancy as any casino in Las Vegas.
VOICE 3: Put it in perspective here, right? We have to remember what the world was like then. This guy wasn't running for president. This guy was opening the biggest, loudest, shiniest, [PAUSE, LAUGHING] gaudiest casino in the world. This is the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN: And this is a story about the President of the United States, his casino, money laundering, possibly some Russian gangsters, and two federal investigations that result in record-setting penalties.
MARRITZ: Welcome to Trump, Inc., an open investigation into Donald Trump's family business from WNYC and ProPublica. I’m Ilya Marritz from WNYC.
HEATHER VOGELL: I'm Heather Vogell from ProPublica.
BERNSTEIN: And I'm Andrea Bernstein from WNYC. Spoiler alert: the Trump Taj Mahal dies at the end of this tale. It folds after 27 years and four — count ‘em — four bankruptcies.
BERNSTEIN: We’re interested in how the Taj lived, because of what it tells us about how Trump operates in business and as president. The casino shows some real Trump signatures: too much debt, not very good long-term planning. And what makes the Trump Taj Mahal an especially good case study? There are documents that tell a story about what went wrong. Tons of ‘em.
VOGELL: So, for this story, my role was mostly to take a deep dive into hundreds of pages of documents that are publicly available. And that includes bankruptcy reports, that includes the regulatory reports, licensing documents, anything we could get our hands on.
So I went through hundreds of pages of records, and I knew that if I stuck with it, that I'd find these little nuggets in there. Alright, what was Trump's relationship to these businesses? What kinds of decisions were being made? What kind of customers were they targeting?
MARRITZ: They do tell a story.
VOGELL: They do! The documents tell an amazing story — sometimes in dry language, but you can find those little nuggets if you really dig deep.
MARRITZ: Would you be offended if I called you a document nerd?
VOGELL: Not at all.
MARRITZ: There’s a particular thing we were looking for in these documents, and that's money laundering.
BERNSTEIN: The Taj had a responsibility, as a financial institution, to combat money laundering. And regulators said again and again that it had failed. Heather and Ilya are going to take it from here. I'll be back towards the end of this episode,
MARRITZ: Picture it: Atlantic City, spring of 1990.
JACK O’DONNELL: My assistant walked into the office and said, “Donald's on line one.” And he said, “Jack, this place is a mess.”
MARRITZ: Jack O'Donnell is an executive working for Donald Trump — not at the Taj Mahal, but at one of the two casinos Trump already owns in Atlantic City: the Trump Plaza. Opening day at the Taj is 24 hours away, give or take. And on the other end of the phone line, Donald Trump is sweating.
O’DONNELL: And he goes, “I don't know what it is, but they're telling me that it has to do with the slot accounting. And he said, “They want to shut us down. They're not going to let us open. I told them that you could fix this problem.”
MARRITZ: So O'Donnell jumps in a limo. Apparently that's how casino executives get around in Atlantic City. When he gets to the Taj, he makes straight for the cage, which is sort of like the bank at the casino, the place you buy chips or cash or chips in. And he starts asking questions.
O’DONNELL: And I asked them, “Okay, how much money was in the main bank?” And I got a blank stare. They couldn't tell me. And it became very clear that they didn't even know how much money they had on the casino floor to open the property.
MARRITZ: O’Donnell doesn't have much choice. He tells his people at the Plaza to come over and they start counting money.
O’DONNELL: And we developed a game plan with the Taj staff and my staff to basically just count money for the next 12 hours. And that's literally what it took to figure out a starting point.
REPORTER: [OVER HIP ‘90s MUSIC] In a space the size of three football fields, there are over 3000 slots.
MARRITZ: The next day is opening day and some of the slot machines are roped off.
REPORTER: [OVER HIP ‘90s MUSIC] … crystal that cost over $15 million alone …
O’DONNELL: The place was so messed up, and it took weeks before they opened up the casino 100%.
MARRITZ: Jack O'Donnell goes back to work at the Plaza, which he says — and he says this like you're not going to believe him — was a well-run gaming hall. The Taj, on the other hand, struggles — practically from day one — to pay back all the money borrowed for the crystal chandeliers and the dozen or so restaurants. Even worse, the parent company, the Trump Organization, is knee-deep in IOUs.
O’DONNELL: You would get these calls on a monthly basis, sometimes a weekly basis. You know, “How much cash you have?,” you know, “How much can you afford to send up?”
MARRITZ: Pretty soon, he quits.
VOGELL: The Taj had a rough couple years those first two years. It had this chaotic opening that was kind of a disaster. And there was the debt that continued to plague it: mountains and mountains of debt. I mean, this building was a record-setter in a lot of ways and it carried that price tag with it into, really, the rest of the rest of its life.
[SLOW, LOW ETHEREAL MUSIC PLAYS]
MARRITZ: In 1991, the Trump Taj Mahal files for bankruptcy, for the first time. Trump makes a deal with his lenders.
VOGELL: In order to get himself out of that bankruptcy, he had to give up a big share of his ownership of the company, even though he retained managerial control.
MARRITZ: Right at the start in ’91, the Taj first comes under suspicion as a possible haven for money laundering.
MARRITZ: Uh, who are you? What do you do?
JOSE PAGLIERY: The name's Jose Pagliery. I'm an investigative reporter at CNN.
MARRITZ: Pagliery was reporting on the Trump Taj Mahal last spring. He was looking into a fine the Taj paid for poor anti-money laundering controls in 2015, when he came across something in a Treasury Department press release.
PAGLIERY: There was a line in there that was particularly interesting. And it mentioned that this is not the first time this has happened.
MARRITZ: He immediately filed a Freedom of Information request and he asked the Treasury Department to expedite it.
PAGLIERY: And some weeks later I got this CD in the mail [THE SOUNDS OF PAGLIERY PULLING OUT A CD, A PAUSE] and on here were, I think, 417 pages of material on that. But the most interesting thing where the first two pages, which were a settlement agreement —
MARRITZ: — between Trump's casino and the Treasury Department.
PAGLIERY: And in this settlement agreement, uh, it says that Trump's Taj Mahal, essentially, in its first almost two years of operation, had apparently not followed the anti-money laundering rules 106 times in that period, which, you know, to put it in perspective, is something like, a little more than, like, one a week, right?
MARRITZ: The specific rule he's talking about, says all transactions above $10,000 have to be recorded: name, address, date, time. It helps law enforcement track possible crimes.
VOGELL: The reason for having this rule is that, basically, if you didn't have it, someone could walk in with $10,000 that they — maybe they made from selling drugs or something like that. They could buy $10,000 worth of chips, and then they could either play them or not play them, cash them out, get a check from the casino — or cash from the casino — and walk away, basically being able to claim that these were gambling profits. So that's essentially an open invitation for money laundering.
MARRITZ: Money laundering, as in, making dirty money from crime look clean, like you won it at a casino. Now, it's not that casinos are supposed to catch every money launderer.
VOGELL: That’s not their job. There’s not some big burly guy who's going to say, you know, [IMITATING A GRUFF VOICE] “You need to leave right now. We can tell you just laundered $20,000 — or tried to — in one of our slot machines.” The casino is just supposed to keep the records there so that authorities who investigate financial crimes can use those records if they end up making a case that involves money laundering at the casino. And those records can also tip them off to cases that they need to investigate.
MARRITZ: This is what the Taj wasn't doing, that it should have been doing. It's the law. One more thing Jose told us that's just strange. During this period, the Trump Taj Mahal is known as a favored destination for the Russian mob. That's according to the book Red Mafia, which Pagliery combed through during the six months he spent reporting this story.
[MUSICAL KEYBOARD FLOURISH]
MARRITZ: And one day in the 1990s, the FBI locates a mobster they've been looking for: Vyacheslav Ivankov.
PAGLIERY: The guy that they tracked down was the top lieutenant to the scariest Russian mobster in the world.
MARRITZ: He’d been living in New York, in Trump Tower. But then Ivankov disappears.
PAGLIERY: And he pops up a few months later at the Taj Mahal —
MARRITZ: — right as the Taj is getting hit with a record fine for anti-money laundering violations.
PAGLIERY: What’s happening?
MARRITZ: Maybe he just likes to gamble?
PAGLIERY: Fine. But, I mean, it's just so weird! There's just so much, and then there's also nothing, right?
MARRITZ: It’s not like the government is ignorant. They know casinos are a magnet for certain kinds of financial crime, and they have people watching for it. In the ‘90s, that’s one guy in particular: Len Senia.
LEONARD SENIA: Yeah, it was me, myself, and I.
MARRITZ: Senia is the government regulator who specifically looked at the Taj Mahal’s anti-money laundering controls right after it opened in 1991. And he's the guy who oversaw their penalty some years later.
That penalty was almost a half million dollars, which is not that much if you're a casino, but it was the highest penalty ever paid by a casino for this type of violation. I met Senia in his basement rec room in Northern Virginia. Picture a guy with bristly silver hair, sitting in a leather La-Z-Boy. He's retired from the Treasury Department now.
When Senia starts out in the early part of the 1990s, [OVER THE SOUND OF COINS AT A SLOT MACHINE] only Atlantic City, Nevada, and Puerto Rico have legal gambling. And some casinos? They treat their reporting requirements like a joke.
SENIA: They had forms filed on Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, you know, the Green Hornet.
MARRITZ: Now, if you suspect Donald Duck of laundering cash, you're going to have a hard time tracking him down. Len Senia closely studied all the ways crooks try to avoid detection.
SENIA: I probably have a list of about several hundred red flags. These would be transactions that would obviously be suspicious.
MARRITZ: There’s a whole lingo.
[OVER A PLUNKY BASS LINE THAT EVOLVES AND DEVELOPS, WITH THE SOUND OF COINS FROM A SLOT MACHINE INTERWOVEN]
SENIA: There’s something called “walking with chips.”
MARRITZ: That’s when someone buys a lot of chips and leaves the casino with their chips.
SENIA: It’s a term that I coined — now everybody uses it. They're being brought back in now by Smurfs, who are —
SENIA: Yeah. People, who are coming in — who are hired to cash in the chips, anonymously.
MARRITZ: Smurfs cash the chips in in small increments so they don't have to fill out any forms. Senia told us he spends a lot of time in the ‘90s meeting with casino executives. He tells them about Smurfs, and walking with chips, and all these different kinds of crimes that can happen in casinos. He wants them to know they already have the tools they need to help the government to detect crime. It's not so obvious, but casinos are watching their customers constantly.
VOGELL: The whole myth of casinos — that they actually, in some ways, want to perpetuate because they want people to feel very uninhibited — that you could almost sort of take on whatever persona you want. You can be this crazy high-roller gambler for tonight and lose a thousand dollars. And what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. But the reality is that you are being tracked every minute that you're there, in one way or another.
MARRITZ: They have cameras, computers — and today, some gaming chips contain tracking devices. Those are the tools. Casinos put the most effort into tracking people with lots of money. ‘Cause, you know, they spend it.
VOGELL: So here's the thing. It's actually really not that big a leap for the casinos to gather the kind of information that the federal government wants them to keep on their high-dollar players and to report it and provide that information in a format that investigators can potentially use — ‘cause they’re collecting this information anyway.
MARRITZ: And Senia says many casino owners step up and do their part.
SENIA: And it took a while — many years — to convince them, “Please, train your employees to identify this!” And over time — though many years — they’ve gotten much better at it.
[INTRIGUE-LADEN KEYBOARD MUSIC PLAYS]
MARRITZ: One casino in Atlantic City does not get much better at detecting and reporting funny business: the Trump Taj Mahal. It struggles through the 1990s and its success or failure has implications for all gambling in Atlantic City. The Taj is one of three casinos Trump owns there. And, as a former state regulator told us, if the Taj were to fail — or if Donald Trump were to lose his gaming license — that could put his other two casinos in danger and risk the jobs of thousands of workers. So state regulators at a special level of oversight to make sure Trump's casinos stay in business.
MARRITZ: It works — for a while! In the 2000s, a couple of things start to drag the Taj down, though. The big one is debt. The casino never really sheds enough of it. And it goes back into bankruptcy, along with Trump's other Atlantic City casinos.
NEWS ANNOUNCER: Donald Trump's hotels and casino resorts are in deep in debt, to the tune of nearly $2 billion.
MARRITZ: And again:
REPORTER: The three Atlantic City casinos, once run by Donald Trump, have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for the third time.
MARRITZ: And again:
REPORTER: As another piece of the Atlantic City boardwalk goes bust: Trump …
MARRITZ: The other drag on the Taj? The gambling business in Atlantic City is hurting. Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and lots of other states have opened casinos. Now people have choices.
DONALD TRUMP: it's just a tough, tough environment.
MARRITZ: Donald Trump even talked about it at a ribbon-cutting for a new tower at the Taj, right around this time.
DONALD TRUMP: But, for whatever reason, this place — I’ve always loved it. I've been here for a long time. And it really does have a special place in my heart. So it’s a great honor … [FADES UNDER]
MARRITZ: Even as it is struggling, Donald Trump is making money from the casino. He even has a clause in a contract that says, “If the casino decides to build any new projects, the Trump Organization has to be offered the job first as general contractor.”
VOGELL: So you think, “Well, these are related businesses, so that's not all that surprising.” But what was surprising was that Trump Organization could get paid even if they turned down the project. And they did! They were paid — even though they decided not to become the general contractor for that hotel project — they provided what were referred to as cost-saving services and raked in $1.1 million. Bottom line, uh, these huge fees were being extracted and sucked out of the casino right at a time when it was trying to get back on its feet.
MARRITZ: [OVER THE HUM OF A CASINO FLOOR’S SOUNDS] In 2003, inspectors from the United States Treasury Department show up again in the Taj Mahal. And they want to have a look at the anti-money laundering controls. When they get inside, inspectors find, quote, “repeated significant violations of the Bank Secrecy Act.” Just a few months later, in 2004, Trump casinos filed for bankruptcy — again.
VOGELL: There was an incredible amount of pressure on the casinos at that point — especially the Taj, because of, remember, that debt that it was carrying that was somewhat new, unique. So what I saw them doing in response to that pressure was to — they decided that they were really, really going to go after those high-rollers.
MARRITZ: And if you're targeting high rollers, specifically?
VOGELL: Then you're going to also have to make sure that you have your controls in place. Because, among those high dollar rollers, you're bound to have a few money launderers.
MARRITZ: Inspectors come back in 2007 and give the casino a stern warning that its Suspicious Activity Monitoring system is, quote, “deficient,” which is odd, because one year earlier, in an annual report?
[STRINGS MUSIC COMES IN SLOWLY]
VOGELL: They were bragging about how great their anti-money laundering controls were. I mean, they were saying that they were going to review currency and Suspicious Activity transactions and reporting using a committee comprised of casino operations, marketing, and administration executives. I mean, that makes it sound like everybody's geared toward complying with the Treasury requirements — that they totally got it covered.
MARRITZ: By the way, this report was accompanied by a letter signed by Donald Trump.
VOGELL: But what was really astonishing to me was that the Treasury Department said that after they — they put that really strong warning out there to the Taj, that they didn't get their act together — that they didn't take adequate steps to fix the problem.
MARRITZ: Still, Treasury takes no formal action against the casino. Inspectors come back in 2010 and 2012 to see if there's been any improvement. There has not been any improvement.
VOGELL: During one three-month period, when the Treasury Department was watching really closely, the Taj was filing less than half of the Suspicious Activity reports that they were supposed to. That included people coming in and cashing out without really playing any games, or playing many games, which is, of course, a flag for money laundering.
MARRITZ: Inspectors gather reams of evidence, and Treasury starts negotiating with the Taj's owners. In 2015, they agree on a penalty: it's $10 million, a new record.
MARRITZ: So what made the 2015 fine against the Taj Mahal so bad?
SENIA: Well, you just have to read — [LAUGHING] read the consent agreement. Uh, it, you know — it screams out that — don't have seen any more than that. Read the consent agreement. It gives you all the evidence you need!
MARRITZ: In the agreement, the Trump Taj Mahal admits to willful and repeated violations of the Bank Secrecy Act. [PAUSE] 12 years pass from the time inspectors go into the Taj and are disturbed by bad record keeping to the time the Taj gets that penalty. And in that time, Donald Trump goes from a man who undoubtedly controls the casino — the chairman of the board — to a man who's renting his name to the casino. He's kind of influential there. And in reality, he only owns a pretty small slice.
The money the Taj uses to pay Treasury? It doesn't come from Donald Trump. It comes out of funds that would otherwise be used to pay creditors in the Taj’s fourth and final bankruptcy. And just four months after that —
TRUMP: [OVER ROCK MUSIC] Wow! [BEAT] Woah. That is some group of people.
MARRITZ: Donald Trump announces he's running for president.
TRUMP: I don't need anybody's money. [SOMEONE IN THE AUDIENCE SHOUTS, “Yeah!”] I’m using my own money. I'm not using the lobbyists. I'm not using donors. I don't care. I'm really rich. I'll show you that in a second. [LAUGHTER]
MARRITZ: We’ll be right back.
[VERY ‘80s MUSIC FROM A COMMERCIAL PLAYS: “The world’s eighth wonder: Trump Taj Mahal! A shining treasure — it’s Donald Trump’s astounding Taj Mahal!” THEN PLAYS OUT]
BERNSTEIN: So, it's Andrea, back with Heather and Ilya. I get the Taj Mahal was not complying with regulations about catching money launderers. But how do we know money laundering actually occurred in the casino?
VOGELL: We know because of cases that were made by the New Jersey Attorney General's office. One of those involve this elaborate bank fraud scheme involving dozens of people from New York who basically stole money out of people's bank accounts and they went down to the casinos in Atlantic City and they withdrew that money from the casinos — which was basically using the casinos to launder the money. What was interesting was that it was not a tip through the casinos that alerted the police to what was going on. It was actually the bank that alerted them to it.
MARRITZ: This bank fraud scheme was going down in 2011 and 2012 at the Taj.
VOGELL: So all of this happened right around this exact same time that Treasury was looking at the Taj and saying, “You guys are really not keeping an eye on money laundering.”
MARRITZ: I should just say here that there is no evidence linking Trump to money laundering at the casino. Lax controls, definitely! But no criminal links there.
BERNSTEIN: So, big picture, what does this tell us? You've dug in deep.
MARRITZ: For a guy who cares about appearances — who puts so much effort into making the biggest, glitziest most amazing and opulent casino the world had ever seen — it is striking that he doesn't seem to care about appearing to follow the law, or actually following the law.
It does remind me a little bit of Trump in politics. He has chutzpah, he ignores rules and norms — and he gets away with it.
VOGELL: I mean, it depends on what you mean by “get away with it.” I mean, he was fined. Um, we’re talking about it. It's been public. He seems to somehow be able to manage his reputation in a way that even these sorts of scoldings by regulators and fines and things like that don't resonate with the public.
BERNSTEIN: So remind us when the Taj officially dies.
MARRITZ: It’s one year ago, middle of February 2017, when crews start taking the Trump name off of the building. Last summer, bits and pieces of the old Taj are auctioned off: Austrian crystal chandeliers are listed at $35,000, you can get a poker table for $650. I know some people got lamps for just $8. And, upstairs, a man is redefining the term liquidation sale.
MAN: I mean, I don’t want you to get wet. Hi, how are you doing?
REPORTER: What are you doing?
MAN: I’m taking a shower.
MAN: I mean, it's — it’s a liquidation sale. They’re giving us a sample. I wanted to see how the shower was.
MARRITZ: This guy decides to take one last shower in the Taj, and a camera crew captures it.
Okay, so the Trump name is off the building, Donald Trump is in the White House, and you're probably thinking, “This guy has gotta be done with casinos!” Not so fast. Donald Trump co-owns a residential tower in Las Vegas, and his business partner on that tower recently gave an interview to Forbes where he said he would like to develop a Trump-branded casino adjacent to that site. The quote is, “I can't talk to Donald about it. But it would have to be Eric or Donald Jr. I would want to do it with Donald — or, let's say, the Trump family.”
And there is one more possible casino in Donald Trump's future. The Trump Organization has a trademark for a casino in Macau, in Southern China. It is an Asian gambling hotspot. And they filed to renew that trademark last summer. We asked the Trump Organization a lot of questions about Donald Trump's Atlantic City casinos, and whether they have plans for any new casinos. They did not respond.
[BACK TO THE COMMERCIAL WITH ‘80s MUSIC: “Come share the magic! Experience the wonder of it all: Beyond your wildest dreams, Trump Taj Mahal!”]
[CREDITS MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: So here's what you can do. We want to understand everything we can about the Trump Organization. So if you've got a document, a picture, a tip — get in touch with us. You can message us via Signal or WhatsApp or call us at (347) 244-2134. Or you can head over to our website, TrumpIncPodcast.org.
MARRITZ: Next time on Trump, Inc.: Russia. Donald Trump has been pursuing real estate deals in Moscow since the late 1980s. Funny enough, they keep falling through. Maybe there's no reason, or maybe we're thinking about it all wrong.
Trump, Inc. is produced by Meg Cramer. Our associate producer is Alice Wilder. The pod was mixed by Wayne Schulmeister and Bill Moss. The editors are Charlie Herman and Eric Umansky. Terry Parris Jr. is ProPublica’s Deputy Editor of Engagement. Jim Schachter is the Vice President for News at WNYC. And Steve Engelberg is the Editor-in-Chief of ProPublica.
A big thank-you this week to Katherine Sullivan, who helped report this episode. Thanks also to James Madinger, who literally wrote the book on money laundering. Seriously, his book is titled Money Laundering: A Guide for Criminal Investigators. We had research assistance from Micah Hauser. Hannis Brown composed the original score.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.